October Links Roundup: Be More Gay, Fight More Nazis

October, my favorite month–cold, dark, and spooky. Trans bois everywhere rejoice at the beginning of vest-wearing season.

When times are troubled, Buddhist sage Thich Nhat Hanh advises us to look for “what’s not wrong” in the world. So let’s start out with this inspiring historical comic from The Nib, “The Life of Gad Beck: Gay. Jewish. Nazi Fighter.”, by Dorian Alexander and Levi Hastings. We usually picture gays during the Holocaust only as concentration camp victims. Beck came of age in Germany during the Nazis’ rise to power. In 1943 he helped found Chug Chaluzi, an underground support network for Jews living in Berlin in defiance of Goebbels’ deportation order. With his twin sister and his life partner, another member of Chug Chaluzi, he worked for the Resistance until captured and tortured by the Gestapo. The three survived the war and lived a long life of activism on behalf of the Jewish people in Israel and Germany. “I mustered strength from the individual moments of happiness that I was always able to wring out of life…no matter how dire the straits,” Beck wrote.

The structural obstacles to justice in America today seem dire indeed. The more I learn, the more intertwined and entrenched the inequalities appear. Yet I take comfort in the awareness that I’m part of a collective movement, adding my little pebbles to the mountain we can build together. I don’t have to fix this by myself.

At present I’m focusing on voting rights and their connection to the prison-industrial complex. We can have all the progressive candidates we want and it still won’t do any good if large swathes of the Democratic constituency are disenfranchised. This happens through strategies like gerrymandering (drawing odd-shaped legislative districts in order to rig the election for a particular party) and a racially biased criminal justice system. Check out the Emancipation Initiative website to help with our campaign to restore prisoners’ voting rights in Massachusetts.

At Salon, journalist Igor Derysh reports on the late Republican operative Thomas Hofeller, “the master of modern gerrymandering,” whose secret files, opened after his death in August 2018, reveal his strategy to dilute the black vote.

…Hofeller’s files show that he compiled maps with overlays of the black voting-age population by district, suggesting that racial data was a key part of the gerrymander, which is at the center of a years-long legal battle

Hofeller, a key player in the Trump administration’s push to add a citizenship question to the census, compiled data on the citizen voting-age population in North Carolina, Texas, Arizona and other states going back to 2011. In memos, Hofeller argued that drawing maps based on the number of citizens rather than the population would “clearly be a disadvantage to the Democrats” and help “non-Hispanic whites.”

…The files show that Hofeller also traveled around the country to educate Republicans about redistricting and urged them to push for prison gerrymandering, which allows inmates to be counted as residents of the area where the prison is located, often helping Republican lawmakers.

Meanwhile, some cities are rethinking the use of arrest warrants for minor nonviolent offenses. The Washington Post reports that “One in 7 adults in New Orleans have a warrant out for their arrest,” often for misdemeanors such as panhandling or missing a court date. The City Council is considering a resolution to dismiss all warrants and charges associated with poverty and homelessness, which account for over 40% of the total. “A coalition of elected officials, local civil rights organizations such as Stand With Dignity and the public defender’s office is proposing a more permanent solution—wiping out nearly all 56,000 warrants, in addition to any debt accumulated from fines and fees.” These reforms would clear the overcrowded dockets, reduce the city’s costs, and eliminate one burden that falls more heavily on poor and minority residents:

Questions about municipal warrants and their impact on public safety intensified after Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in 2014 in Ferguson. A subsequent Justice Department investigation of the city’s police department found that more than 16,000 people had outstanding municipal warrants in a city of 21,000 people.

Those warrants were “almost exclusively” used as a threat to generate revenue from poor, black communities through fines and fees, which they could not afford to pay, according to the Justice Department report. Five months later, Ferguson Municipal Court Judge Donald McCullin recalled all warrants issued in the city before Dec. 31, 2014, which amounted to nearly 10,000.

A similar ruling was issued in January by the chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, who dismissed nearly 800,000 outstanding municipal cases.

Lisa Foster, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center in New York, worked for the Justice Department at the time of the Ferguson report. She said that most people miss court because they simply forget, do not have reliable transportation or child care, or cannot afford to miss work. And many are unable to pay their fines, so they stay away out of fear they will be arrested.

Also last month, California legislators approved a bill to ban private (for-profit) prisons from operating in the state, The Guardian reported. The move would likely shut down four ICE immigrant detention centers as well.

Going in the wrong direction, as usual, the Catholic Church is still using its behind-the-scenes political power to block clergy sexual abuse lawsuits. Maria Kwiatkowski and John Kelly have the full story this week in USA Today: “The Catholic Church and Boy Scouts are lobbying against child abuse statutes. This is their playbook.”

The article details what I would consider numerous violations of the Establishment Clause and tax-exempt status requirements, including sermons and mass mailings to parishioners, smear campaigns and threatening personal messages to pro-victim legislators. At stake are proposed state laws that would extend the statute of limitations for victims to sue. Victim advocates support such laws because memories of child abuse can take decades to surface, and even for those victims who never forgot, they often do not have the safety and resources to pursue a claim till later in life. Meanwhile, the Church pleads that lawsuits would bankrupt it, while spending millions on lobbying. However, it appears that public opinion is finally turning against these once-revered authority figures:

Since 2009, lawmakers in 38 states have introduced such bills, according to a USA TODAY analysis, and the rate of success has picked up. Of the 29 states that have enacted such laws, 11 did so for the first time this year.

Ten states no longer have any civil statute of limitations and 16 states have revived expired statutes, according to CHILD USA, which tracks such legislation daily.

Perhaps we’d be better off with Mindar, an AI recently installed at a 400-year-old Japanese Buddhist temple. According to Vox.com, “Robot priests can bless you, advise you, and even perform your funeral”:

For now, Mindar is not AI-powered. It just recites the same preprogrammed sermon about the Heart Sutra over and over. But the robot’s creators say they plan to give it machine-learning capabilities that’ll enable it to tailor feedback to worshippers’ specific spiritual and ethical problems.

“This robot will never die; it will just keep updating itself and evolving,” said Tensho Goto, the temple’s chief steward. “With AI, we hope it will grow in wisdom to help people overcome even the most difficult troubles. It’s changing Buddhism.”

Robots are changing other religions, too. In 2017, Indians rolled out a robot that performs the Hindu aarti ritual, which involves moving a light round and round in front of a deity. That same year, in honor of the Protestant Reformation’s 500th anniversary, Germany’s Protestant Church created a robot called BlessU-2. It gave preprogrammed blessings to over 10,000 people.

Then there’s SanTO — short for Sanctified Theomorphic Operator — a 17-inch-tall robot reminiscent of figurines of Catholic saints. If you tell it you’re worried, it’ll respond by saying something like, “From the Gospel according to Matthew, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Anthony Boucher’s classic sci-fi story “The Quest for Saint Aquin” has become a reality. Let me know if you see a robass at the Blessing of the Animals service this weekend.

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